My sermon from 19 Pentecost (3 October). This is one of the shortest sermons I preached, but I like it just the same. :) It is essentially about theodicy, that is, why is there evil in the world if God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good? The text I used was the old testament lesson, Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4.
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2.1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry,
wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
Several decades ago, the New York Botanical Garden acquired a dried up specimen of Ibervillea Sonorae. This beautiful plant is native to northwestern Mexico. Due to the arid climate, the plants are able to store up water for the summer, and have remarkable survival abilities. So the New York Botanical Garden put this dried up specimen of Ibervillea Sonorae
"on display in a glass case. 'For seven years,' says Joseph Wood Krutch, 'without soil or water, simply lying in the case, it put forth a few anticipatory shoots and then, when no rainy season arrived, dried up again, hoping for better luck next year.' That's what I call flying in the teeth of it all.
"(It's hard to understand why no one at the New York Botanical Garden had the grace to splash a glass of water on the thing. Then they could say on their display case label, “This is a live plant.” But by the eighth year what they had was a dead plant, which is precisely what it had looked like all along. The sight of it, reinforced by the label 'Dead Ibervillea sonorae,' would have been most melancholy to visitors to the botanical garden. I supposed they just threw it away.)" (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 165).
To all the passerbys that little shoot seemed dried up and dead, but underneath the stem life was still slowly moving along, loud as hope waiting patiently for water that was not likely to come. Think on that for a second. This dreid up plant was able to produce life for seven years without soil or water, waiting for rain that was not going to come. That's a leap of faith, instead of just giving up in the midst of arid and dry climate, in an enclosed case of glass, the plant waited patiently, loud as hope.
Centuries earlier, we have the prophet Habakkuk in a similar situation—the branch of Jesse had dried up, Jerusalem was on the verge of collapse due to corruption and abuse of power, armies were encroaching on all sides. He was surrounded by prophets saying that it was the will of God that Jerusalem would fall, that God was set to punish his people.
To Habakkuk, the world seemed out of control, and Habakkuk wanted answers. So we hear his cry to God, “How long, Adonai, must I cry for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you 'violence' but you do not save!” Seeing the injustice of the world around him, the poor who were getting poorer by the minute as Jerusalem's economy was on collapse, the rich who kept their wealth to themselves without sharing, the illegal aliens in Jerusalem who were being treated like dirt instead of being treated as people, the religious and government rulers who were squandering money from those in need. And Habakkuk cries to God, saying, “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds.” Habakkuk says, “For this reason the law lacks power, and justice is never carried out. Indeed, the wicked intimidate the innocent. For this reason justice is distorted.”
And God seems silent. Where is hope when God seems silent and the world is going down the toilet? Where is hope when you are like that dried up branch in a glass case, a spectacle for others as you wither without water? Where is hope?
I believe one of the most profound questions in the Bible, and still even to this day is it asked, it was asked by the psalmists, it was asked by the disciples of Jesus, and I have heard it asked so many times today, hope fading in people's eyes as they ask “Why does God let bad things happen in this world?” Indeed, Habakkuk is asking this very question of God. How long, Adonai, must we cry for help, but you do not listen? How can God allow the wicked to oppress the righteous?
Today may seem in some ways not that different from Habakkuk's time. It still seems to me that the wicked prosper while the righteous decline. Look at the homeless men and women, girls and boys on the streets. The economy which is allowing the rich to get richer while the poor continue to get poorer, barely able to make ends meet if they even are able to. Where diseases like HIV/AIDS, and cancer take so many lives. Where loved ones pass away. Where we are involved in an ecological crises that is affecting the poorest nations at drastic rates while the richer nations continue to use and abuse the earth. Where natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms can take lives as well as damage property. It's scary to think about sometimes, when the storms of life seem to take control.
Sometimes, we call out, along with the prophets, “Where are you God?” When we pray the prayers of the church later on for world peace, for health, we pray these same things every week. O God why are you silent?
Yet, even in the midst of this silence, though, is there hope? Let us return to our prophet and friend, Habakkuk. After he cries to God in anger and sorrow, this is the interesting thing. Even though the world seems to say otherwise, Habakkuk refuses to believe that God will remain silent. Refuses to believe that God will remain silent. No, because this is the God that led the people out of Egypt, this is the God that made a promise to King David that God would bring about a savior out of his heirs, this is the God that promised to Sarah and Abraham that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars. How can a God like that, a God of grace and love, remain silent? So Habakkuk says, “I will stand at my watch post and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint.” You see, even though God appears silent now, there is an expectation that God will not remain silent. There is a readiness on the prophet's part to hear and wait, to be patient and wait for the God of promise to speak and break the silence.
Just like that dried up plant in the New York Botanical Gardens waiting patiently year after year for rain, Habakkuk is ready and prepared to wait for God to speak here and now.
And guess what? God answers Habakkuk! The God of ages breaks the silence and says “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” God is telling him to create the first billboard in human history! God's word should be so large that the runner in hurridness can see it and recognize it as the word of God! And what is the word of God for us today? The righteous will live by faith. Let's say that together. The righteous will live by faith. Righteous does not mean morally righteous, like doing right or wrong. No! Righteous here means being relationally righteous, being in a relationship with God. That the righteous will live by God's faith and steadfast love.
Unlike the curators of the New York Botanical Garden, God sends rain (as you could tell this past Thursday). When we put forth our anticipatory shoots, dried up as the world may be, God will send rain. God will speak, God will act, God will break the silence. Because God's word is so large that a billboard cannot contain it. Because God's word dwells in each of us. That's right! God is never silent because God is speaking through us. That's what God told Habakkuk 3,000 years ago and that's what God is speaking to us today.
My favorite part of this short book is the end. Habakkuk says “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Adonai, I will exult in the God of my salvation. Adonai, my God, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”
Even when there is no visible sign of blessing, not even a hint or evidence of God, but in spite of that, in spite of, God is faithful. And we have cause to rejoice. And to write that on the largest billboards, to proclaim it in the street.
Because you know what? God was never silent! All along God was speaking. You see, God is never silent as long as we give voice on behalf of those in need. The mothering love of God is never hidden as long as we show that love to the strangers among us, to those who need it most. Let us fashion a billboard with our actions in love, to tell all the world that God is here, God is love, and God is speaking. We are the ones God chooses to act in the world, to love the world, to bring good news and hope to the world. God acts and speaks through us. God you are our strength. I think that gives us cause to rejoice. Can I get an Amen?